Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writers: Paul De Mielche, Avi Kleinberger, Gideon Amir, James R. Silke
Cast: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Tadashi Yamashita, Judie Aronson, Guich Koock, Don Stewart, Nick Nicholson
This space is a little over a year old and I’ve yet to make any Internet enemies, so I’ve resorted to inventing detractors in my head. These medieval dickweeds often pose the question: how can you dedicate your content to Western martial arts b-films and not cover American Ninja? I’ll admit that ignoring it up to this point was a conscious choice. We try to cover movies wallowing in straight-to-video obscurity, not a Cannon Films picture that scored $3.2 million in its opening weekend. Our preference is for real martial artists giving the acting thing a go, not a model-turned-actor who had no real martial arts credits prior to filming. Last, I may have ignored it on a subconscious level out of pure shame. Before watching it for this review, I’d never even seen American Ninja. What’s that high-pitched wheeze? Oh, right: the sound of my tattered Internet credibility disappearing into the ether.
After a string of small parts in films like Bloody Birthday and Bachelor Party, Michael Dudikoff was handed the ball for American Ninja and told to run with it. (Secretly and under the cover of smokebombs, of course; this was a ninja movie). Ninjas had done some Entering and Revenging at the box office, but never American-style, and Dudikoff was the handsome (white) devil of Cannon Films producers’ dreams. He plays Army Private Joe Armstrong, a soft-spoken amnesic military truck driver stationed in the Philippines who has a penchant for effortlessly beating the shit out of people. That’s right. Without American Ninja, there would be no Jason Bourne films. Ignore the fact that The Bourne Identity novel was written in 1980, and that quip is a lot funnier.
During an ambush on his unit that leaves several fellow soldiers dead, Armstrong survives using a mix of unique fighting skills (punching) and improvisation (a screwdriver and tire iron) to fight off a group of ninja attackers. Instead of getting the hero’s treatment for saving the daughter of Col. Hickock (Koock), Armstrong is reprimanded and shunned by the entire base. They all seem to think his aggression caused a lot of unnecessary deaths. Armstrong seems to think that being a giant pussy is no way to act around ninjas.
Tough-as-nails corporal and fighting expert Curtis Jackson (James) wants to make an example out of Armstrong because no one likes a “glory boy” when it comes at the cost of teamwork. Instead, Jackson gets his ass handed to him in front of his peers and underlings. He’s not so much embarrassed or angry as he is curious about where Armstrong picked up such advanced skills, and they become pals. Theirs is the latest in a long line of action movie friendships forged during the act of trying to beat the piss out of each other.
Armstrong is going to need all the help he can get, because he stumbles upon a devious arrangement between the local American military leadership and a black market arms dealer named Ortega (Stewart) that could blow the roof off the establishment. In order to get the guilty parties, he’ll have to go through an army of ninjas led by Ortega’s main hatchet man, Black Star Ninja (Yamashita). No one actually calls him this by name, but he has a cute little black star tattoo on his face. Could have been a birthmark or a mole, I don’t fucking know.
American Ninja is definitely a movie I would have loved as a nine year-old burgeoning martial arts student. Which is not to say you can’t dig this as an adult, because the action moves at a great clip and the ninja-heavy climax cuts loose and properly zany. Brandishing more than two screenwriters is usually a clue that the resulting film will be a fucking mess, but unlike a lot of other projects with a Frankenstein crew of scribes, it manages to keep its head above water for the most part.
In what amounts to his first real leading role, Dudikoff is reasonably OK. He doesn’t bring much charisma, has little emotional conviction in his line delivery, and is a neutral element in some otherwise entertaining fight scenes. I don’t doubt that he honed his craft and improved over the course of the franchise and his career, but he doesn’t do enough on either the action or dramatic fronts to carry the film, nor is he bad enough to be laughably entertaining. The real star of this affair is Steve James -- the man is an absolute bad-ass and unlike the fresh-faced Dudikoff, he looks the part. Fortunately, he supplies enough personality and screen presence for the both of them. And of course, by personality and screen presence, I mean an awesome “helicopter explosion by way of rocket launcher” scene.
One other note: Judie Aronson plays Patricia, Armstrong’s love interest and the Colonel’s daughter. As I did, a lot of people will remember her from Weird Science as Hilly, the eventual love interest of Wyatt Donnelly. That film featured prominently in my youth, and I thought it was important to mention that even as an kid, I thought she was the hottest chick in that entire film, which is a little odd because the whole point of the movie is to give you a giant hard-on for Kelly LeBrock and her cosmic abilities and sexy outfits. Also, Steve James had an uncredited role in Weird Science. How’s that for some full circle shit?
American Ninja ranks very favorably in the canon of 1980s American action films. No one in their right mind is going to confuse Michael Dudikoff for Sho Kosugi or even Leo Fong in terms of actual martial arts skills, but the filmmakers manage to hide his lack of training through a delicate balance of pace, editing, and absurdity. Might this have been a better action effort with a young Jean Claude Van Damme in the lead role? Perhaps, but the world wasn’t quite ready for American Ninja with a Belgian Accent.
Wide and large.
6 / 7